Fire Watchers and their Towers in the North Cascades / Skagit Valley Journal

More about Fire lookout tower in Cascadia… the low down the mechanics of running these operations and the rugged folks who made it happen. Plus name checks for the town of Sedro-Wooley which i’ve spent time in years ago.

Fire Watchers and their Towers in the North Cascades

Story posted on Aug. 12, 2002, last updated June 15, 2010

Regarding Jack, Gary and Phillip:

The most famous firewatcher was Jack Kerouac, who spent part of the summer of 1956 in the tower at Desolation Peak near Mount Hozomeen and the U.S.-Canada border. Like some other watchers of the day, he anticipated his time there as a period of reflection and meditation and cleansing in the solitude. His friend, poet Gary Snyder, signed on as a fire lookout earlier — at Crater in 1952 and Sourdough in 1953, but was blacklisted by the Feds and did not return for 1954, the “high summer of the great fear,” as historian David Caute described it. Snyder’s Reed College friend and fellow poet Philip Whalen manned Sauk Mountain in 1953, then Sourdough in 1954 and 1955. Snyder was the one who alerted Kerouac to the joys and solitude of the mountains. All those sites north of the Skagit are part of the Mount Baker National Forest that was originally patrolled by the legendary ranger Tommy Thompson.

Whatever Kerouac thought he was seeking, he found what many others did: monotony and boredom after the initial excitement. We learn from the Ann Charters biography, Kerouac, a Biography, that Jack came up from California in mid-June 1956, attended a fire-watching school for a week and then spent eight weeks on the mountain after being packed in on muleback. On the climb upwards he saw the charred snags that stood witness to the flash fire of 1919 that led to name of Desolation, part of the Starvation Ridge area. Nary a fire threatened his assigned area that summer so he spent much of his time on the routine chores of chopping wood, collecting bucketsful of snow for washing and cooking, communicating on the two-way radio, pacing about on the narrow trails, chewing Beech Nut gum and smoking his roll-yer-owns.

He slept on a wooden bunk with a rope mattress in the sleeping bag Snyder helped him pick out in Oakland. To amuse himself he baked rye muffins, played a baseball game with a pack of cards that he’d invented when he was a boy in Lowell, and picked a few sprigs of alpine fire and a wild flower every day to put in a coffee cup on his desk. Jack wrote at the desk facing away from looming Mount Hozomeen on his north, the dark, naked rock of Hozomeen coming to symbolize for him ‘the Void,’ with its clouds and thunderstorms, the two sharp peaks of Hozomeen looming in his window as he lay in bed, ‘the Northern Lights behind it reflecting all the ice of the North Pole from the other side of the world.’ During the long afternoons he sat in his canvas chair facing ‘Void Hozomeen,’ listening to the silence of his cabin and making up haikus. His experience that summer is the kernel of his later book, Desolation Angels, the companions he imagined dancing out of the fog along the ridge. The North Cascades Institute in Sedro-Woolley offers a course based on the experience of Jack Kerouac and his writing.